In today’s society the term “Yule” brings to mind a log that we chuck in the fireplace at Christmastime, or perhaps a delectable dessert created to represent the log we chuck into the fireplace. Either way, few of us, including myself, are not well informed about Yule.
Naturally, I began my research on the internet and ran across a very informative article that told me “Yule means feast, or maybe wheel.” After scrunching my eyes at the screen once or twice to assure myself that I wasn’t having some sort of reading crisis, I read through the rest of the article. After all, now my interest was piqued. I double checked the information provided and found that it’s true. “Yule” can mean either a feast that celebrates the winter solstice or reference a wheel, depending on which country of origin you are speaking. Scandinavian countries celebrate the shortest day of the year with a Yule feast, while Indo-Europeans who made their great migration to Scandinavia in 3800 BC. Of course the wheel itself didn’t show up until long after that, around 2500BC or so.
Naturally the celebration of the winter solstice isn’t really to celebrate the shortest day of the year, but a time to celebrate the new beginnings that will come as the days once again grow longer. The longer days brought hope to the people, especially those living in particularly cold regions. The farmers, shepherds, and the hunters relied heavily on the lengthening days and the warming air to be able to survive. The winter solstice was the turning point in which to celebrate all things new and all things hopeful.
The Yuletide feast was much more than just the one time during the cold dark winter months that there was food in excess, Yuletide tradition was really about coping with the excessive darkness and warding off the evil and the nasty spirits it was thought to harbor.
The origins of Yule are not 100% clear, but most believe it began as a Scandinavian tradition. Any other considerations of origin include countries of the same approximate latitude. This means that at the peak of winter the sun doesn’t peak over the horizon until close to 9:00 in the morning, and scurries back over the horizon around 3:00 in the afternoon. This leaves a whopping six hours of daylight. It would be only natural to celebrate the lengthening of days.
Evergreen trees and holly bushes were the wintertime symbol of life and hope. In the barren winter landscape, their lush green was evidence of life when life could not be seen. Holly bush branches were often used as practical decorations for doors and windows, their generally prickly nature were thought to keep out the bad spirits of winter time. These spirits were thought to bring with them illness or madness.
In Scandinavian countries, it is Julbock who wanders from house to house delivering gifts in hopes of receiving a sampling of porridge from each home. Julbock is the Yule goat. His roots trace all the way back to the Mythological god, Thor. Julbock was once thought to be Thor’s carrier. So many Yule traditions are heavily steeped in Ancient folklore simply because the missionaries weren’t able to reach Norway or Scandinavia until the 10th century. By then, tradition had been well established.
Let’s not forget the Yule elf. He lives typically in attics and keeps the household running smoothly and everything in order. He is a very busy little guy, and all he asks in return is a bowl and rice delivered for Christmas Dinner.
Iceland contributed the legend of the Yule cat, which is apparently a remarkably large creature with a pension for devouring lazy people. Lazy people of the village were not only declined any type of Yule reward, but were in constant Yuletide danger of being gobbled up by the ferocious and sinister Yule cat. Naturally this threat made people a bit more motivated to be contributors to the well being of their village. The typical Yuletide reward, other than being safe from the Yule cat’s clutches, was a new article of clothing.
The slaughter of any animal, including fish, was strictly forbidden during the Yule celebrations, and this tradition is still carried out through most parts of the world that celebrate Yule. The Yule feast was prepared ahead of time in order to adhere to this rule. The wheels were not to turn on the winter solstice, as it would reflect impatience with the turning of the sun, applied as the arrival of springtime.
Common Christmas traditions such as mistletoe and Christmas trees were part of Yule tradition as well. Although oddly enough, until the 13th century it seems, Christmas trees were suspended upside down. There is no documented reason for this, just the knowledge that it occurred. There is of course, ample speculation that nobody had yet devised a method to assist the cut tree to stand upright as they do today.
Yule is still actively celebrated, especially in the Nether regions of the world. We have incorporated most of the Yule traditions into Christmas celebrations that it can be difficult to determine which holiday is being honored simply by observing a home’s decorations or the behaviors of the people.
All of the December holidays have one basic theme intact, regardless of ancient tradition or religious affiliation. They are a time of peace and joy, love and honor, and of course, merriment and sharing.